The 5 Most Important Plays in NBA History

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2013

For a minute there, it looked like Tony Parker had officially enshrined himself among NBA Finals legends.

His unreal dagger in last season's Game 1 against the Miami Heat provoked the inevitable, nostalgic reflection on plays that decided the fates of entire seasons. Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver offered a prescient caveat to his discussion of whether Parker's instant classic would join that iconic catalogue:

Where this shot falls in the canon of huge Finals shots will be determined, in part, by how the rest of the series plays out. History tends to be written by and about the winners. Should the Heat restore order, Parker’s shot could eventually head in the direction of novelty. 

The Heat not only restored order. They did so on the back of a shot that immediately replaced Parker's as the most important shot of the finals. A shot that replaced Manu Ginobili's semifinals' bomb as the most timely of the playoffs.

Ray Allen happened again.

In the process, he reminded us that while every great play has a cause and effect, they don't always go according to plan. History's most important plays were the product of split-second decisions by the game's greatest players. To whatever extent their coaches' plans were successful, it had everything to do with reacting and executing like champions.

Especially with games on the line.

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No. 5: Ray Allen Ties Game 6 of 2013 NBA Finals

In the chaos of late-game situations, playbooks don't mean much.

Though LeBron James would go on to define Game 7, there wouldn't have been a Game 7 without Ray Allen's game-tying three-pointer in Game 6. Allen has made lots of big shots in his day, many of which were the product of meticulously designed and executed plays, replete with multiple screens and carefully timed ball movement.

Not this one.

This shot was the product of poise, Chris Bosh and a little luck. Oh, and the fact that Tim Duncan sat out his second straight possession with Gregg Popovich attempting to keep his quickest legs on the floor and patrolling the perimeter. 

Soon as James' three-point attempt clanged off the back of the iron, it became clear just how badly Duncan's presence was missed. Three Spurs found themselves in good rebounding position, but not one was larger than Chris Bosh.

And not one of them had Bosh boxed out either.

Manu Ginobili made a valiant attempt to sideswipe the ball away from Bosh, but he had neither the position nor the reach.

Once Bosh secures the ball, two things happen. First, Ray Allen (red arrow) instinctively begins backpedaling to behind the three-point line, demonstrating the court awareness of a guy who's navigated those corners countless times. Second, in his effort to snag the rebound, Ginobili (blue arrow) crashes to the ground, taking himself out of the play and impeding Danny Green's ability to reach Allen.

In the span of about two seconds, James' missed shot spurred a real-time demonstration of Murphy's Law on performance-enhancers.

Reminding us that he's seriously never afraid to take the all-important shot, LeBron waved down Ray Allen like the NBA Finals depended on it. Mario Chalmers was equally open across court. With about seven seconds to go, Allen could have very justifiably passed the ball.

At least if he were anyone other than Ray Allen, and if he were anywhere other than his corner sweet spot.

Erik Spoelstra coached another fine series, further establishing himself as one of the league's top coaches regardless of how much talent adorns his roster. But in the instant it took to turn these finals around, things didn't go as they were drawn up. They hinged on muscle memory, years of seasoning and an iconic three-point shooter doing what he does best.

No. 4: Big Shot Bob's Go-Ahead Three-Pointer in Game 5 of 2005 NBA Finals

Though Gregg Popovich may have outwitted himself in the 2013 Finals, he's proven abundantly capable of winning games with clipboards and erasable markers.

With the 2005 Finals tied at two games apiece and his team trailing 95-93 in overtime, Popovich had little choice but to think three-pointer—especially on the road. He had good reason to want Robert Horry taking that three-pointer, too.

Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen were a combined 2-of-12 from beyond the arc. Horry had made four of his five three-point attempts, contributing 18 points off the bench. He'd earned his "Big Shot" moniker throughout the game, so it was only fitting he'd finish accordingly.

With Horry himself inbounding the ball, Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen prepare to set screens designed to create space in the corners for Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, respectively.

Parker and Bowen keep the weak-side defense preoccupied, but it's Duncan's screen on Tayshaun Prince that becomes decisive.

With Prince a step behind, the first thing Rasheed Wallace sees after Horry makes the pass is a wide-open Manu Ginobili. Never mind that Ginobili was 0-of-4 from three-point range and 5-of-16 overall—these are the kind of shots he makes.

Once Ginobili catches the ball, he has three options. He can shoot, throw the ball to Duncanwho's sealed off Ben Wallace for a potential layupor pass the ball back to Horry, who's been scorching hot all game long.

Given his own shooting woes, Ginobili was looking to pass. And with Prince hovering near the baseline trying to simultaneously cut off a feed to Duncan and put a hand in Ginobili's face, deciding which pass to make was a no-brainer.

Prince still wound up closest to Horry after closing out, but it was too little, too late.

San Antonio held on for the last 5.8 seconds and held on to win the series in Game 7, ensuring a third ring for Duncan—the first without Spurs great David Robinson at his side.

No. 3: John Paxson's Game-Winner in 1993 NBA Finals, Game 6

One of Michael Jordan's finest moments may have been one John Paxson seized for him.

The Phoenix Suns were within 14.4 seconds of staying alive and forcing a Game 7 against the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals. But when Michael Jordan is on the other side, a 98-96 lead isn't much of a head start. The Suns pressured Jordan from the inbound pass, ultimately triggering an automatic bailout from Scottie Pippen, who then initiated the action with his move to the basket.

Phil Jackson talked about the play—named "the Blind Pig"—and told the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson the game was one of his most memorable, highlighting that all five Bulls touched the ball during the final sequence. By the looks of their initial pressure on Jordan, the Suns were looking to accomplish just that. Anything to get the ball out of Jordan's hands.

In addition to full-court pressure on Jordan (who had all of Chicago's fourth-quarter points thus far), two other Suns hovered near the half-court line. As soon as Pippen got himself open, Jordan put his fate in his teammates' hands.

Seeing an opportunity to end the game once and for all, Charles Barkley overplayed Pippen when he flashed to the top of the three-point line. 

Had Jordan created enough space after delivering the ball to Pippen, he might have gotten it right back.

From More Than a Game by Phil Jackson and Charley Rosen:

Blind Pig. An automatic move to relieve pressure on guards before half-court offense can be initiated. If the guard is being tightly defended as he dribbles the ball up court, the weak-side wing will move to the high-post area to receive a pass. The wing will then return the ball to the guard after he has created space between himself and his defender and is in a better position to begin the offensive set—or else initiate an aggressive attack on the basket.

But with limited time and the pesky Kevin Johnson glued to Jordan, Pippen went with the "aggressive attack on the basket."

As Pippen penetrates, Barkley (blue arrow) trails the play and Danny Ainge (red arrow) leaves his man John Paxson, angling to get in between the ball and the basket.

By the time Pippen drops the ball off to Horace Grant, Ainge had become the Suns' last line of defense. Meanwhile, Phoenix's other perimeter defenders (blue arrows) are glued to Jordan and cutting off the passing lane to B.J. Armstrong in the corner. No one rotates to Paxson.

Grant, who hadn't shot well in the game, gladly took notice.

Once behind the play, Barkley faced the unenviable decision of trying to make up ground, clog the paint and potentially get his hand on a shot...or run out to keep Paxson covered.

Had Pippen made a pass directly to Paxson rather than Grant, it would have been easier for Barkley to recover to the perimeter. Instead, Pippen's extra pass to Grant on the inside forced Barkley to continue charging at the basket, leaving three Suns crowding the restricted area.

A long way away from John Paxson.

This one wasn't just important because it decided the finals. It guaranteed Jordan the first of two three-peats.

No. 2: Magic Johnson's "Junior, Junior Sky Hook" in Game 4 of 1987 NBA Finals

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gets all the credit for those classic sky hooks back in the day, but teammate Magic Johnson busted out one of his own with a decisive Game 4 on the line. The Los Angeles Lakers led the Boston Celtics 2-1 in the series, and they were looking to make a statement in Game 4.

Since Magic and Larry Bird entered the league in 1979, each had claimed three titles coming into '87. Going head-to-head in the finals, both sides had each taken a championship from the other. This was the finals to break all the ties.

In other words, it was kind of a big deal.

And it all started with an inbounds play. With seven seconds left to go in the game, the Lakers were throwing the ball in under their own basket. Magic Johnson (blue) and James Worthy (red) positioned themselves in the paint with Boston's Dennis Johnson guarding Johnson and Kevin McHale assigned to Worthy.

When the Lakers break, Johnson sets a pick for Worthy, who flashes to the baseline for a moment of daylight. Though he didn't get the inbounds pass, the play forced enough confusion that the Celtics defenders (Johnson and McHale) switch on the screen after what appears to be an initial attempt to fight through it. That switch becomes important, eventually leaving McHale—a power forward—alone on the perimeter with Magic.

By the time Magic catches the ball on the nearside, McHale finds himself fighting through a second screen thanks to Kareem's outstretched leg.

Rough day for Mr. McHale. Then, Magic has a choice to make.

He can either feed Kareem in the post or take a shot himself. Intent on making up for his deference in 1984, Magic opted to improvise upon Pat Riley's original play design this time (via the Los Angeles Times' Mark Medina):

I'm in the same situation and I had the ball in my hand and I can determine the outcome of it. Coach [Pat] Riley called the play to dump it into Kareem, but I flashed back to '84 when I failed and I thought, 'There's no way Kareem is going to get this ball.'

Adding to Magic's logic, of course, was the fact that Kareem would have had to catch and make a quick move with his back to basket (with under five seconds remaining). And more importantly, he now had McHale guarding him, a slower defender than the originally assigned Dennis Johnson. 

Magic made his move.

Instantly, a trio of Celtics legends closed in on Magic—and a long trio at that. During the 1986-87 regular season, McHale, Robert Parish and Larry Bird combined to average 4.9 blocks per game. Averages were of no help this time. Magic had some length of his own (6'9''), and he used every bit of it to get that hook shot up and over Boston's frontline.

Good choice, Magic.

Los Angeles went on to win the series in six games. Boston wouldn't return to the finals until 2008.

No. 1: Michael Jordan Claims Ring No. 6 in Style

Sometimes the most important plays are also the simplest. 

Phil Jackson can't take much credit for this one. In addition to taking the offense into his own hands, Michael Jordan took the ball too—right from Karl Malone. After Malone looked to secure point-blank post position on a cross screen with Jeff Hornacek, Jordan took the kind of risk legends take.

And before Malone had any clue Hornacek was open on the weak side, Jordan sneaks up, swipes at the ball and gives his Bulls a chance to end the series then and there. With the shot clock turned off, Chicago spaced the floor—Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr darting for the corners—and let Jordan go to work.

With a 3-2 series lead and the shot clock turned off, M.J.'s team trailed 86-85. 

As Jordan advanced the ball, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman brought up the rear, leaving Karl Malone and Antoine Carr initially free to hover near the free-throw line, forming a wall to keep Chicago—namely Jordan—out of the paint.

Crucially, Dennis Rodman moves across court to join Kukoc in the corner, drawing Antoine Carr under the free-throw line to prevent a baseline cut.    

That left Bryon Russell alone on the perimeter with Jordan. Pippen remained far behind the three-point line on the wing, but knowing Chicago's only down by one point, Karl Malone sagged way off Pippen to protect the basket. Between Chicago's spacing and Jordan's initial move to his right, Utah's defense collapsed entirely.

The line of resistance that initially extended beyond the free-throw line now sat just in front of the restricted area.

What happens next is open to interpretation.

You could call it a push-off, or you could take a cue from Phil Jackson and describe it a little more creatively.

To hear Jordan explain it, Russell just "bit on" his move after reaching in to no avail (from Rick Weinberg's special to ESPN):

It was a do-or-die situation, so I let the time tick to where I felt like I had the court right where I wanted it to be. As soon as Russell reached, he gave me a clear lane. I made my initial drive, and he bit on it. I had a great look at the basket.

A great look and one that couldn't have been better scripted.

That look turned out to be Jordan's last as a Chicago Bull, and it sealed his second three-peat. It also meant he managed to win six titles without ever having to play more than six games in the process.

Who needs a Game 7 when you have Jordan?